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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

Nawaz Sharif to face further graft hearings from jail 

Ousted prime minister's jail cell will include a bed, chair, teapot and lamp

Ousted prime minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif will face further graft hearings from jail after he was whisked to prison on his arrival back in the country, officials have said.

Sharif and his daughter Maryam were taken to prison in Rawalpindi on Friday night after they flew back from London to their electoral stronghold of Lahore.

The pair surrendered to officials of the National Accountability Bureau less than two weeks before polling in Pakistan's general election and as Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) party appears to be losing ground to Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf.

Sharif and his daughter's return a week after being convicted by an anti-corruption court in their absence is widely seen as an electoral gamble to try to reinvigorate the PML-N's fortunes.

Both have said they will appeal their convictions, which saw Sharif handed 10 years in jail and Maryam, his likely political heir, sentenced to seven years while they were visiting Sharif's wife in a London hospital.

The ousted prime minister was found guilty of failing to disclose how his family came to buy expensive flats on London's Park Lane.

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He and his daughter have until Monday to appeal and apply for bail, but the Ministry of Law and Justice said Sharif will face further trial over holdings in Al-Azizia Steel Mills and Flagship Investment. The anti-corruption court will sit in Rawalpindi's central jail, where he is being held, for security reasons.

Sharif and his daughter touched down in Lahore on Friday evening accompanied by an entourage of aides and reporters.

The pair were immediately arrested and ushered to a waiting jet which flew them to Islamabad from where they were transferred to the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

After being given medical checks, local media reports said the pair had been installed in special “b-class” accommodation reserved for prisoners whose “social status, education or habit of life have been accustomed to a superior mode of living”.

Facilities in the cells were reported to include a bed, chair, teapot and lamp, though prisoners can pay extra for a television, fridge and air conditioning.

Sharif's return came as one of the country's worst ever suicide bombings cast a shadow over the country's election campaign and raised fears of more violence ahead of polling.

Sunday has been declared a national day of mourning after three suicide blasts at elections events killed more than 150 last week.

The threat of further attacks led political parties to demand extra security after the carnage. Counter-terrorism officials last week said they believed there was a threat to several leaders of political parties.

Around 25,000 Sharif supporters rallied for his arrival in Lahore on Friday in a tense day of political protest despite a sweeping security crackdown.

PML-N leaders had called on supporters to turn out as a show of strength to mark Sharif's return.

But 36 hours before his arrival scores of party activists were arrested in an apparent move to handicap the protests.

Shipping container barricades were also placed across roads to the airport and mobile phone coverage was cut off in large parts of the city. Broadcasters were warned in advance about their reporting and a ban on protests was placed on the city.

Sharif had posted a video to supporters as he made his way to Pakistan via Abu Dhabi.

He had called on followers to stand with him and "change the fate of the country".

"The country is at a critical juncture right now," he said in the clip. "I have done what I could. I am aware that I have been sentenced to 10 years and I will be taken to a jail cell straight away — but I want the Pakistani nation to know that I am doing this for you."

Sharif has alleged the military is pushing a “judicial witch hunt” against him and his party. He has repeatedly clashed with military leaders in the past five years and was removed by a military coup in 1999 during a previous term as prime minister.

The PML-N had been seen as favourites for re-election until recently but have appeared to lose ground to Imran Khan. The cricketer-turned-politician campaigned for an investigation into Sharif's finances after the 2016 Panama Papers leak linked his family to offshore companies.

With Nawaz Sharif in prison and barred from standing, the PML-N is now being led by his younger brother Shahbaz.